Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects/New Zealand Birds in 1772


NICOLAS THOMAS MARION DUFRESNE was an officer in the French navy, and was born at St. Malo in 1729, In 1771 he was commissioned at his own desire to restore to the island of his birth a Tahitian who had accompanied Bougainville to France. He was also charged to ascertain if a continent or islands existed in the Southern Ocean whence useful products might be exported to Mauritius or Reunion.

The middle of the eighteenth century is approximately the period in which the collection and classification of exotic plants and animals became one of the chief objects of exploratory voyages. This was also one of the aims of the expedition under the command of Marion and Commerson, a botanist who had accompanied De Bougainville, was to have accompanied Marion also. But he was unable to go, so that no botanist and also no zoologist made the voyage. Crozet, however, who was second in command of the Mascarin, has left not a few observations relating to the birds which he saw at sea during the voyage, or in the countries which he visited. They are embodied in his book Nouveau Voyage à la Mer du Sud.

The native of Tahiti fell sick shortly after the commencement of the voyage, and was put ashore in Madagascar, where he died. One of the objects of the voyage thus ceased to exist. The first undiscovered land which was sighted after leaving Madagascar was named Terre d'Espérance, and subsequently, by Cook, Prince Edward Island. Near it a collision with the Mascarin caused the partial disablement of the Marquis de Castries; the search for a southern continent was therefore abandoned, and it was resolved to visit the countries which had been discovered by Tasman in the seventeenth century.

Crozet's first observation relating to sea-birds was made on the 8th of January, 1772, about twelve days after leaving the Cape of Good Hope. Terns were then in view, and thereafter, until the 13th of that month, Terns and Gulls were frequently seen. Shortly after the latter date Du Clesmeur, who was in command of the Marquis de Castries, sighted another island which was named Ile de la Prise de Possession, and which has been renamed Marion Island, Crozet landed upon it, and relates that the sea-birds which were nesting upon it continued to sit on their eggs or to feed their young regardless of his presence. There were amongst the birds penguins, Cape petrels ('damiers'), and cormorants. Crozet also mentions divers—'plongeons.' It is doubtful to what birds he alludes under this name—a name which is usually applied to the Colymbidæ, a family which has no representative in the seas of the southern hemisphere.

The terns which Crozet saw were probably of the species Sterna vittata, which breeds on the islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam. It also frequents the Tristan da Cunha Group, and Gough Island and Kerguelen Island, so that it enjoys a wide distribution in the Southern Ocean. The gulls may have been Dominican Gulls (Larus dominicanus), which are to be found at a considerable distance from any continental land. The penguins which frequent the seas adjacent to the islands which Marion named Ile de la Caverne, Iles Froides, and Ile Aride are Aptenodytes patagonica, Pygoscelis papua, Catarrhactes chrysocome, and Catarrhactes chrysolophus. The eggs of the last-named penguin have been found on the Ile Aride, which is now known as Crozet Island, and the whole group as the Crozet Islands. The Cape Petrel (Daption capensis) nests on Tristan da Cunha and Kerguelen Island. A Cormorant (Phalacrocorax verrucosus) inhabits Kerguelen Island, but its occurrence on the Crozet Islands is doubtful. Finally, Crozet saw on the island on which he landed a white bird, which he mistook for a white pigeon, and argues that a country producing seeds for the nurture of pigeons must exist in the vicinity. This bird was probably the Sheath-bill (Chionarchus crozettensis) of the Crozet Islands.

The next land visited was Tasmania, where the vessels cast anchor on the east side of the island. Like their Dutch predecessors, the French mariners bestowed the names of European birds upon the birds which they saw in these new lands, and it would be an idle task to seek the equivalents of the ousels, thrushes, and turtle-doves which Crozet saw in Tasmania. There can be no doubt, however, about his pelicans, for Pelecanus conspicillatus still nests on the east coast of the island or on islets adjacent to the coast.

The duration of Crozet's sojourn in New Zealand was about four months in the autumn and winter of 1772. The vessels anchored in the Bay of Islands. Crozet has given a long enumeration of the birds which he saw in New Zealand. We will not seek to find what his wheatears and wagtails, starlings and larks, ousels and thrushes may have been, but we may make an exception in favour of his black thrushes with white tufts ('grives noires à huppes blanches'). These birds were evidently Tuis (Prosthemadura Novæ-Zealandiæ).

Crozet distributes the birds which he saw in New Zealand under four heads, as birds of the forest, of the lakes, of the open country, and of the sea-coast. In the forests were Wood Pigeons as large as fowls, and bright blue in colour; no doubt the one pigeon of New Zealand (Hemiphaga Novæ-Zealandiæ) is alluded to in this description. Two parrots are mentioned, one of which was very large and black or dusky in colour diversified with red and blue, and the other was a small lory, which resembled the lories in the island of Gola.[1] It was no doubt a Cyanorhamphus—a genus of which there are in New Zealand more than one species. The large parrot may be the Kaka, although there is no blue in the plumage of the Kaka (Nestor meridionalis). There is blue under the wing of the Kea, but the Kea (Nestor notabilis) is not a bird of the North, but of the South Island.

In the open country were the passerine birds, which Crozet mentions by the names of European birds, and also a quail (Coturnix Novæ-Zealandiæ) which has lately become extinct.

On the lakes were ducks and teals in abundance, and a 'poule bleue,' similar to the 'poules bleues' of Madagascar, India, and China. The 'poule bleue' was doubtless the Swamp Hen or Purple Gallinule which, because of its rich purple plumage and red feet, is a conspicuous object in New Zealand landscapes. The species which inhabits New Zealand, Tasmania, and Eastern Australia is Porphyria melanotus.

On the sea-coast were cormorants, curlews, and black-and-white egrets. The curlews, which pass the summer in New Zealand and the remainder of the year in islands of the Pacific Ocean, are of the species Numenius cyanopus. They leave New Zealand in autumn, with the exception of a few individuals which remain in favoured localities. The 'aigrettes blanches et noires' were perhaps reef herons; the black bird of the form of an oyster-catcher, and possessing a red bill and red feet, was doubtless the Sooty Oyster-catcher (Hæamotopus unicolor) which

Blue-faced Gannet

in Tasmania is known as the Redbill. Terns and gannets were amongst the birds of the coastal waters. Of New Zealand terns, Sterna frontalis and S. nereis are the species which are seen most frequently. The 'goelette blanche' may have been Gygis Candida. The gannets may have been 'manches de velours—the name by which French mariners knew the Masked Gannet (Sula cyanops). The body of this gannet is white; the wings are rich chocolate brown. It is a bird of the tropical and sub-tropical seas of the world and its appearance in New Zealand waters is infrequent.

From New Zealand the two vessels, now under the command of Duclesmeur, sailed for Guam and thence to the Philippine Islands, but as Crozet's observations on the birds which he saw after he quitted New Zealand are of little importance, we will follow him no further.

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  1. I am unable to identify the lories of Gola Island.